A Boy Named Sue
Larry Klayman is known for an endless barrage of lawsuits targeting his political enemies. But his attempt last fall to oust President Obama fell seriously flat.
On Sept. 18, 2013, a “citizens grand jury” in Ocala, Fla., found President Barack Obama guilty of “defraud[ing] … the American people into electing an illegal person for the Office of President of the United States.”
In a verdict signed by local tea party activist and “Citizens’ Grand Jury Judge” Randal C. Fritz, the jury sentenced the president to 10 years imprisonment and demanded that he “forthwith surrender himself into the custody of the American people and the people of Florida.”
That didn’t happen. So on Oct. 13, self-declared “Citizens’ Prosecutor” Larry Klayman, who convened the so-called grand jury, appeared on the steps of Washington, D.C.’s World War II Memorial and called on a cheering crowd to “wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town … to put the Koran down and … come out with his hands up.” The date he set for Obama’s “last chance” was Nov. 19.
To accomplish that lofty goal, Klayman formed the “Reclaim America Now Coalition.” Its members include Jihad Watch, an anti-Muslim hate group whose director, Robert Spencer, believes that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that multiculturalism is an anti-Christian conspiracy to destroy the West; You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, an anti-gay “ministry” and hate group whose leader, Bradlee Dean, has argued that it is moral to execute LGBT people; Ride for the Constitution, a coterie of truckers who made news in October with plans to jam Washington, D.C., roads until their demands, which included the president’s impeachment, were met; Gun Owners of America, a pro-militia group that has been described as “eight lanes to the right of the NRA”; and a raft of other extremist organizations united by their loathing of America’s 44th president.
The group converged on Washington, D.C.’s LaFayette Park on Nov. 19 for speeches by Klayman and a host of far-right superstars including Muslim-bashing diva Pamela Geller, arch-“birther” and WorldNetDaily publisher Joseph Farah, Christian Right stalwart Alan Keyes, and unnamed “victims of President Obama’s administration.” It noticeably failed to force Obama from office, and Klayman’s boast that at least 2 million people would attend also fell flat. In fact, about 100 made it to the rally, 1/20,000th the promised number.
“This has never been done before,” the group acknowledged before the event. “[B]ut as Thomas Paine said, these are the times that try men’s souls.”
‘Meting Out Punishment’
These are certainly times that try Larry Klayman. Klayman, who in declining requests for an interview described the Southern Poverty Law Center as “an atheist, anti-American group which hates people of faith, conservatives and anyone who disagrees with its ultra-leftist agenda,” said he would sue if this article were libelous or “holds us in a false light.”
Klayman is a former U.S. prosecutor who made a name for himself in the 1990s as founder and head of the activist law firm Judicial Watch, under whose auspices he launched at least 18 lawsuits against the Clinton administration for various supposed misdeeds. In this role, he deposed numerous high-ranking administration officials. And through his membership in the influential and secretive Council for National Policy, which lobbies for hard-line conservative positions, he became part of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” (his words and Hillary Clinton’s) that plotted to “remove [Bill Clinton] by whatever legal and ethical means were necessary.”
Although he launched a number of lawsuits and other campaigns between 2000 and 2008, Klayman made little news during the Bush years. But the election of Barack Obama – who Klayman believes to be a crypto-Muslim, proto-communist pretender to the presidency – seems to have driven him over the edge.
Klayman, who once sued his own mother, has previously seemed to subscribe to approximately the same version of reality, or at least to play by the same rules, as the rest of America. “At Judicial Watch and now Freedom Watch [an organization Klayman formed after he broke with Judicial Watch], I used the civil court system to seek and obtain justice as best I could,” Klayman wrote in his 2009 book, Whores: Why and How I Came to Fight the Establishment. “But I do not have the powers to indict someone or some government, labor union or corporate interest for criminal acts.”
Something must have changed, for in April 2012, Klayman proclaimed that he has exactly those powers. In a rambling manifesto that cited the Magna Carta, Marbury vs Madison (the 1803 case which established that the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say over laws’ constitutionality), and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s 1992 opinion in United States v. Williams, Klayman concluded: “Although the customary practice for summoning a federal grand jury is by a court … the [Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure] does not preclude citizens from exercising their own rights to impanel grand juries under the Constitution. … [A]nd if a true bill of indictment results, the courts are technically required to commence proceedings and the executive branch to enforce the court’s edicts.”
Using language and logic reminiscent of that put forth by antigovernment “sovereign citizens” groups (which have long claimed the right to convene their own private grand juries, hold trials in imaginary courtrooms, and mete out justice according to their own rules), Klayman continued, “if the courts refuse and the executive branch does not carry out its duties by, for instance, arresting the criminally accused, Americans do have a right to make ‘citizens arrests,’ hold trials and legally mete out punishment in their own right.”
Obama’s ‘Last Chance’
Klayman hasn’t attempted a “citizen’s arrest” of President Obama or any of the other top-level officials he’s “indicted” but he has shown a willingness to engage in rhetoric and stunts that straddle the border between funny and unnerving. Visitors to CitizensGrandJury.com, the website on which he announces the Ocala-based group’s various activities, are greeted with a rousing chorus of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” the revolutionary anthem from “Les Misérables.” And while claiming to be calling for peaceful revolution, Klayman has no problem with violent imagery.
In his Nov. 1 WorldNetDaily column calling on left and right to unite at his Nov. 19 rally, Klayman wrote: “[T] he nation’s ‘leaders’ are so corrupt that it is no longer a question of whether revolution will ultimately break out, but simply when. In the words of French King Louis XV, ‘Apres moi le deluge,’ meaning let the people be damned, and after me I don’t care if all hell breaks loose. Indeed, this came to pass when French citizens stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, in addition to the king’s noble court, government officials and judges, were later taken to the guillotines.”
He continued, “This is the last chance for Obama and his Democratic and Republican enablers to escape more serious remedies by the populace.”
Klayman wasn’t always such a fringe figure. He began his professional career in Washington as a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) consumer affairs division. There, he wrote in Whores, he learned that “rather than being a friend of the people, the government was often their enemy.” After a stint at a private law firm whose “partners also proved to be weak and ethically compromised,” he quit and opened his own practice, where he formulated the strategy that would make him famous.
“An aggressive approach against the powers that be alone was not enough,” he wrote in Whores. “The government official or judge who was subject to making decisions based on politics or money would need to be held accountable. … Threats of legal action or, if the threats didn’t work, the actual filing of lawsuits against government personnel, were thus a means to coax them to do the right thing.”
Klayman would employ this strategy to great effect during the Clinton administration, filing at least 18 lawsuits against the president, first lady, and other administration officials. In 1994, he founded Judicial Watch, which he conceived as a sort of private Justice Department that would hold the government to account. While willing to sue the administration over nearly any perceived misdeed, he was particularly exercised over “Filegate,” a conservative conspiracy theory that claimed that agents of Hillary Clinton had improperly reviewed FBI files on political adversaries. Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr – no friend of the Clintons – exonerated the president and first lady in 1998, but the suit continued until 2010, when a judge dismissed it with a quote from Gertrude Stein: “There’s no there there.”
Equal Opportunity Extremism
Klayman, who seems to perceive every setback or sign of opposition as a personal attack, sees “there” everywhere. Like many in the antigovernment “Patriot” community, for which he clearly has an affinity, he believes the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by domestic terrorists was actually masterminded by Saddam Hussein and “American neo-Nazis.” Also like many in the Patriot movement, he believes Obama is constitutionally ineligible to be president, supports U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations, and harbors an unhealthy suspicion of Muslims. Earlier this year, he speculated that a tragic but accidental explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant might have been the work of Muslim saboteurs.
Klayman also reads heavily into the meaning behind events in his own life. He has even gone so far as to suggest that agents of the Clinton administration may have tried to assassinate him. He is especially sensitive to matters of identity and identity politics. A Jewish-born convert to Christianity, Klayman sees anti-Semitism everywhere. He has described a judge who ruled against him as an anti-Semite, and railed against liberal Jews who, he contends, have betrayed the tenets of their faith. In a recent column for WorldNetDaily, he wrote that his heart “throb[s] in shame” over the crimes of the “felonious liberal Jews” who have committed “the moral equivalent of ethical and religious bankruptcy” by aligning themselves with the Obama administration.
Despite his affinity for ultraconservative memes and Patriot conspiracy theories, Klayman defies easy political categorization. While in law school at Georgia’s Emory University, he volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, “thinking that this seemingly honest peanut farmer and former Georgia governor would be right for the nation after the cesspool of the Nixon years.” He is an admirer of Ralph Nader, a decidedly progressive political activist best known for his devotion to consumer protection and environmental causes – and also of the late Howard Phillips, a principal architect of the American religious right and co-founder of the Constitution Party, a far-right outfit whose stated goal is to “restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.”
While he made his name suing Clintonites, Klayman has attacked Republicans as well. He criticized George W. Bush’s administration nearly as vigorously as he did Clinton’s, suing former Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly and attacking the Patriot Act, which significantly expanded the government’s ability to spy on American citizens. Reflecting on the Bush presidency in Whores, he wrote, “Having violated every known concept of civil rights for American citizens … [George] W. [Bush] did more for this country’s move to socialism than Marx or Mao could ever have done.”
Klayman and the Law
In 2004, Klayman competed as a candidate for U.S. Senate in Florida’s Republican primary, promising to shrink the government, push for America’s withdrawal from the United Nations, and demand “the immediate removal of Cuba dictator-in-chief Fidel Castro – by force if necessary.” In a fundraising letter to right-wing financier and former supporter Richard Mellon Scaife – who reportedly discouraged Klayman from running – he outlined plans to “investigate and prosecute in the Senate Hillary Clinton much like Richard Nixon did with the communist spy Alger Hiss,” and said he hoped to mount a challenge to Hillary Clinton’s seemingly inevitable presidential run in 2008.
Despite endorsements from the likes of WorldNetDaily publisher Joseph Farah, who called Klayman a “hero,” Klayman lost the primary. His reputation was also dealt a blow by speculation, outlined in a 2004 article in the left-leaning Nation, that Klayman may have violated campaign finance law by soliciting a loan from the direct-mail outfit that assisted with his campaign.
Though he returned to private practice and involved himself in the case of Terry Schiavo — a woman in a persistent vegetative state who became a cause célèbre for the Christian Right, which fought vigorously to prolong her life by artificial means — Klayman’s star appeared to be waning. In 2006, he sued Judicial Watch, alleging among other things that Tom Fitton, whom he had hired to replace him as president, had “hijack[ed]” the group and “defrauded” both Klayman and Judicial Watch donors. The suit backfired: Not only did he fail to regain control of the organization, but in 2009, a federal judge found that Klayman had violated his severance agreement by failing to reimburse Judicial Watch for personal expenses in the amount of $69,358.48. In 2011, the same judge sanctioned Klayman for “dilatory” and obstructionist actions that “needlessly delayed” his suit against Judicial Watch.
Following his failed bid for the Senate, Klayman founded Freedom Watch as a sort of successor to Judicial Watch. Along with the predictable lawsuits against the Obama administration and a rather fanciful attempt to extract $10 trillion from Iran, he has in recent years represented a number of anti-Obama “birther” plaintiffs attempting to prove in court that the president is constitutionally ineligible for office, and sued major media organizations on behalf of politically like-minded clients who felt affronted by the attention they received.
Lately, Klayman has begun to fall afoul of the law himself. The Florida bar publicly reprimanded him in 2011, and in June 2013, the Phoenix New Times reported that the Arizona State Bar was investigating him, possibly in connection with reports that he had misled the court about an administrative matter related to his appearance in a lawsuit against citizens attempting to recall Joe Arpaio, Maricopa County’s immigrant-hating, Obama-bashing sheriff. Also in 2013, the New Times published excerpts from an Ohio appellate court ruling that Klayman had “inappropriately touched” his own children.
Yet even as his own probity and credentials were called into question, he continued his barrage of unwinnable suits. In 2011, he represented gay-hating celebrity preacher Bradlee Dean (whose “ministry,” You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, is now a member of Klayman’s Regain America Now Coalition) in a $50 million defamation suit against MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and another reporter, which ended when a court ordered Dean to reimburse his opponents for nearly $25,000 in legal fees. The same year, naming himself as plaintiff, he sued Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, for failing to act quickly enough on requests that he take down pages posted by Palestinian militants calling for the destruction of Israel and Jews worldwide. In 2012, a judge found the defendants were shielded from liability under the Communications Decency Act.
Also in 2011, acting on behalf of publisher and friend Joseph Farah, who runs WorldNetDaily, Klayman sued Esquire magazine for more than $120 million over a satirical piece claiming that Farah had decided to destroy 200,000 copies of Jerome Corsi’s Where’s The Birth Certificate? The Case that Barack Obama is not Eligible to be President, which was about to go on sale when the president released his birth certificate. That suit was dismissed in June 2012.
A lesser man, or one who felt in any way constrained by reality, might have been daunted by such setbacks – but not Larry Klayman. In 2012, he began convening “citizens grand juries” and calling for “peaceful” revolution.
It’s unclear where all of this is supposed to lead. For all his extremism, Klayman has for the vast majority of his public career worked within the system, attempting to use the system against itself. Even now he’s law-abiding: amidst his talk of revolution, he proudly announced on Nov. 6 that the Reclaim America Now Coalition had a permit to demonstrate near the White House. According to its website, group intended to “CAMP OUT until we get results.”
Maybe he thought something big really would happen. But more likely, as seems to have often been the case with Klayman’s stunts, even he realized that there was just no there there.